Anyone who has ever tried to navigate the endless maze that is social services in America will tell you that it’s designed to frustrate you into defeat.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, August 21, 2019
She came to my attention through an acquaintance who has spent time advocating for women who have suffered domestic abuse. She was homeless. She was jobless. They had taken her child.
They had crossed paths in the past, this woman and my acquaintance, and had recently run into each other in halls of the courthouse. The woman was distraught, explained that she felt like no one was helping her. Could my friend please help? They reached out to me and I spent an hour on the phone with her, giving me a detailed step-by-step account her situation. Later, my acquaintance and I met with her in a coffee shop, discussed her case and looked through her court records.
I am a skeptical person by nature, but when dealing with people on the fringes of society, it can be difficult to determine fact from fiction. They are often operating outside of social norms and are reasonably distraught, so it’s hard to determine how much is real and how much is bullshit. I decided to try to give this woman the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
To protect her privacy, we’ll call her Susan. She had left a home where she claimed she was being abused, and after filing a restraining order against a family member, came to live in a women’s shelter with her young child. Over the course of getting her child into school, they were diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I have some experience with this and much of her description of her child’s behavior rang true to me. She claimed the child was high functioning and so didn’t often exhibit obvious signs of behavior issues, but definitely had trouble with transitions. Anyone who has dealt with a child with ASD can relate to this.
She says she took the medical diagnosis (which I have a copy of) to the local child study team for her school, asking for an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and a 504, plans which are design to allowed the child greater latitude in finding creative ways to educate children with disabilities. She was denied. I don’t know why.
Susan explained that she often had trouble getting her child to school on time, because mornings were a struggle. The IEP would have allowed for this chronic tardiness, but eventually, she was late enough times that she was referred to truancy court. She says she explained her situation, paid a fine, and that assumed that was that.
What happened next is not entirely clear, but in hindsight, it would appear that Susan’s mother entered the picture and began working with DCPP (Department of Child Protection & Permanency) or what used to be called DYFS to have the child removed from her custody.
The timeline is less than clear and I haven’t been able to see all the court paperwork, but a series of events that went from being denied an IEP, to truancy court, to DCPP getting involved, led to an evaluation by a case worker from DCPP of both Susan and her child.
A few weeks ago, as they were getting ready to go visit a friend over a summer holiday, there was knock on the door, and a case worker, a person from child services and a police officer told her they were taking her child.
Several days later she appeared in court, along with her public defender, and the judge confirmed the removal. DCPP claimed that the child did not have ASD, should not be on medication, and that Susan had Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, a condition whereby, most often a mother, either makes up fake symptoms or causes real symptoms to make it look like the child is sick. The usual reasoning is they do it to get attention for themselves. Susan says she was not allowed to speak.
Susan was surprised to see her mother in the courtroom, as she had been the one Susan had signed a restraining order against. It struck her during the proceedings that many of the things that came out about her evaluation, were not things that had come up during her interview, but were only things that her mother knew about.
Later she learned that her mother was trying to get custody of her grandchild.
There are many reasons to believe Susan’s account of things, as well enough questions to suspect that she’s either being deceptive or delusional.
And here’s the thing. Because of intense privacy rules, which make logical sense, there is no way to know what is going on behind closed doors. Is Susan being gaslighted by her mother? Have the people at DCPP misdiagnosed her child? Is her public defender, a position known for being overworked and underpaid, doing an adequate job in defending her?
I reached out to Susan’s attorney by phone, and Susan did the same. The attorney told Susan that he could not talk to me about the case, because it involved a child.
The fact that so much of this is done in secret casts doubt on the entire system because there can’t be any transparency. These are not matters of public record. A family could be destroyed and we would never know about it.
Everyone assumes that the court system, child protection services, child study teams, advocates, judges and lawyers are all working the best interests of everyone involved, but we know that can’t possibly be the case all the time. Our entire criminal justice system is a shambles and people fall through the cracks all the time. Innocent people go to jail. Good parents lose their kids. Families are separated. Kids who need help, don’t get it.
This is not to say that there aren’t thousands of dedicated professionals, volunteers and advocates who work themselves to the bone, often to their own detriment, every day trying to help mothers, fathers and their children. This is not an indictment of those caring professionals. This is, however, an indictment of the system we’ve allowed to develop through tax cuts, neglect, and an administration of bureaucrats who can’t be bothered to deal with people on the fringes. We throw people away in this country because we don’t think they deserve our help. We can do better.
As of this writing, I don’t have an answer in Susan’s case. I don’t know what the outcome will be and no one with any knowledge will speak to me. She’s now in danger of losing her emergency housing altogether, and if she does, she will no doubt lose her ability to be reunited with her child. Then she will be homeless, jobless, childless and alone. Her child will live with strangers.
This is not a way to conduct a civil society.
If you have a story you’d like to share with us concerning any of the issues discussed in this story, specifically about dealing with social services either as a recipient or as a provider, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in a position to volunteer as an experienced advocate or attorney contact email@example.com.